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Feiss to retire: W&M provost leaves legacy of intellectual fire

  • Geoff Feiss
    Geoff Feiss  The College's retiring provost said he would be nostalgic for the people at William and Mary.  
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Geoff Feiss, the retiring provost of the College of William & Mary, certainly was sincere when he offered the following toast during a faculty reception in his honor: “All my job has been is to get out of the way of all the talented, creative people here and allow them to do what they do so well.”

Feiss did not say that facilitating the kind of intellectual fervor—“getting out of the way,” as it were—that marks universities such as William & Mary can tax an administrator to the proverbial bone.

Feiss came to the College from the University of North Carolina in 1997 to serve as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For the past six years, he has served as the College’s chief academic officer during a time of aggressive, strategic growth in the midst of economic uncertainty. He has prized a sense of “balance” when it comes to making decisions; only a few times, he said, did he bump up against “the bright lines”; lines, he explained, that a person cannot cross if integrity is to be kept intact.

As retirement approached, along with a pending trek across country to take up residence in Colorado, Feiss agreed to participate in a videotaped interview session. During that process, he reflected upon his time at William & Mary and the values discovered here. Feiss also talked about the College’s “sweet spot,” a spot that builds, he said, from the university’s “incredible reputation,” its “beautiful campus” and its “perfect size.” He commented upon the intellectual continuity that the College nurtures, admitting that “we probably overdo our Jeffersonianism, but it is kind of neat that one of the great early intellects of the American experience found his place here.” Describing himself as an “environmental determinist,” Feiss defined “great” universities in terms of those that create environments “rich with possibilities” for students, faculty and staff exploring life and the world within “a mosaic of ideas and concepts drifting around”—in effect, a community of scholars.

“Universities are places entrusted with the legacy of a civilization,” he said. “It means we have hard conversations; we talk about things that maybe you wouldn’t talk about in your front parlor, but that’s what we have to do in order to weigh them in the balance.” He predicted that universities such as William & Mary increasingly need to see themselves as “arbiters of the public discussion,” a discussion hosted by people who “talk” to each other rather than “scream” at each other.

In retirement, Feiss, no doubt, will keep up his own intellectual rigor. In a recent blog posted on the College’s Web site, he wrote that his primary residence in Colorado will be three blocks from a university campus. The ”intangible ‘other’ within universities that made me never leave is this: we play with fire,” he wrote. He described universities as “raucous, noisy, querulous and cranky”; places that “won’t leave well enough alone.” That is what he loves about them, he said.

Of course, he also plans to spend time in his mountain cabin. Envisioning what he might do there, he said, “I’d like to get up in the morning and actually have a second cup of coffee and read the newspaper and ask myself, ‘What am I going to do that day?’” Among the options might be learning to fly fish, riding his bicycle, experimenting with drawing and other activities that he said demand the use of that non-administrative “half” of his brain.

“I’m trying not to map it out because I think part of what I need is a little less structure in my life for awhile,” he said.